History of Religious Life
St. Augustine and the Religious Life
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The Institute of Religious Life and the Daughters
of St. Mary of Providence bring you the fourth in a series of lectures given
by Fr. John A. Hardon S.J. on the theme: History of Religious Life. Father Hardon
is a Professor of Theology at St. Johns University in New York. He is a well-known
lecturer and consultant to various national, religious, and educational enterprises
and is renowned as a retreat master and spiritual director. Fr. Hardon is the
author of many articles and books, including Holiness in the Church and
the Catholic Catechism, which has been strongly endorsed by Holy Mother
Church. In the following Chicago lecture Fr. Hardon speaks on the subject: St. Augustine
and the Religious Life. Father Hardon.
Augustine Greatest Single Genius in the History of the Church
The subject of our lecture, therefore, is the contributions
of St. Augustine to the doctrinal principles and community structure of religious
life. The best way to approach St. Augustines doctrinal teaching is to see
what were the principal heresies that he had to combat during his day. An understanding
of those errors is to understand Augustine because and he was the one who in
fact expressed this truth: God permits evil in order that greater good will
somehow come out of the evil which He allows; and He permits error that a deeper
understanding of the truth might be one of the fruits of the error that God
permits. Augustine, by all odds, is the greatest single genius in the History
of the Catholic Church. St. Paul, of course, as an apostle towers above everybody
else except Christ Himself but then, Paul is in a class by himself. Among the
post-apostolic giants of Christian religion none compare with Augustine.
Augustines Writings Are Numerous and Extensive
All of us, in greater or less measure, are familiar with
the life of Augustine. It comes in several stages. He was born of a Christian
mother and a pagan father, until the age of thirty-three he lived, as he admits,
a very sordid even godless life. He had been for nine of those thirty years
a Manichean. The two main reasons for his conversion as he himself testifies:
the first, the prayer and tears of his mother Monica, and the patience and wisdom
of Ambrose. His mother saw him converted and died as we know shortly before
he became the, or, began to become the great man we know. Augustines writings
are numerous and extensive. I suppose the best known of his works is his Confessions.
There are many standard editions. This is one of the most readable translations
by Frank Sheed, Confessions of Augustine written in American English
by a man who understands the Latin and who appreciates the depths of Augustines
thought. The Mentor Omega paperback mentor omega edition of the Confessions
is also a good one. Everyone should have read certain books in their lifetime
this is one of them. My recollections of reading the Confessions of
Augustine were during I think it was Latin class in high school when the
Marianist Brother came to see what I was doing so intently in the back of the
room. He said, Im pleased with your reading but this is not the place or the
time. Well, I then proceeded to show my attention in listening to, I think
it was Latin. His most important work is the City of God that too should
be read. It is much harder reading especially the first perhaps third of it,
but his wisdom is pretty well synthesized in those two works. There are several
hundred of his letters; there are some two-score volumes and there are by now
many pseudo-augustinian works; writings that are purportedly by Augustine. Maybe
parts of them are by him but others by someone else. In any case, Augustine,
I suppose, is the most plagiarized man in history.
Three Principal Errors and Doctrinal Principles
What were the principal errors that he fought and as the
consequence of which gave us the doctrine that ever since has become the foundation
of even Christianity, not to say, religious life? The three principal errors
were Donatism, d-o-n-a-t-i-s-m, Manichaeism and Pelagianism. Many of Augustines
writings are called anti-Donatist, anti-Manichean, anti-Pelagian which will
not appear in the title in the scholarly those are the three main divisions
of Augustines writings. Now his sermons were different because they were given
to the faithful in the light, of course, of the errors he was combating but
there are many commentaries on the Scripture that Augustine have left us. There
is a difference, however, between the commentaries on Scripture which, by and
large, were heard by his audience and then taken down, more or less I might
say faithful to his thoughts; and his letters that he himself wrote or dictated
and also his treatises that he wrote. So the sharpest and clearest thought is
found in his written treatises.
What do we find in each of these three errors that he thought
especially as relative to religious life?
First Heresy - Donatism
The schism and later on the heresy of Donatism arose as a
result of the persecutions in the early Church. We rightly glory and are proud
of the numerous martyrs that the Church had for the first three hundred years
- all the Popes were martyrs and no doubt one reason why we had no non-Italian
popes for the last 450 years is because the last non-Italian pope was assassinated
not common knowledge. In any case, martyrdom is the glory of the Church;
but along with the martyrs there also were many apostates.
Very Human But Tragic Problem
The problem that gave rise to the error of Donatism was a
very human but tragic problem. As the persecutions waged some Christians, in
fact many of them, gave up their Faith which could be done in a variety of ways.
For example, one way was to turn over the sacred writings that the Christians
would have; another way would to be to step on the Cross or pronounce a blasphemous
phrase towards Christ; or sacrifice infants to one of the idols. In any case,
out of fear of death or imprisonment many apostatized. Among those who apostatized
was a North African bishop.
Those Who Had Given Up the Faith Wanted to Come Back
These persecutions came and went. One result was that, often,
after the persecution would let up those who had given up their Faith wanted
to come back. So what happened in this case? The bishop would apostatize, well,
repented and wanted to go back to practicing his Episcopal Office so some of
the Bishops said, Sorry once you apostatize you lost everything. You lost your
Christian character. You lost all the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation.
You lost your priestly character. You may practice a long period of penance
and then maybe be re-baptized, re-confirmed and re-ordained. And that in a
nutshell is the heresy of Donatism. The name comes from a Bishop Donatus who
became the object of this kind of controversy in North Africa.
Helped with the Churchs Understanding of Who Belongs to the Church
Augustine fought against this idea and in the process he
helped develop the Churchs understanding of who belongs to the Church, because
what the Donatists were, in effect, saying is that the Church that Christ founded
is a church exclusively of saints: that when you sin, say, by apostasy or other
grave crimes well, sorry, you used to be a Christian, but no more. If you
enter the Church by baptism, you leave it by grave sin. And then depending on
the part of the Church, in some places there is almost no re-instatement even
possible; in other cases, repentance perhaps, at the moment of death. Clearly,
thats not the Church that we know today. Some are now scandalized at the Churchs
patience with sinners in going, if you wish, to the other extreme. Look at all
the sinners weve got; why dont we clean up the Church? Well, a good idea,
but the Church has learned a lot over the centuries - and one thing that She
now knows, thanks in large measure to Augustines genius that as Christ foretold
there would be in this Church - remember the parable of both good fish and bad
fish - as one who is not a fisherman I wouldnt know the difference. In any
case, the figure of speech is valid. As we also know at the end of the world,
there will be the sheep and the goats. Throughout the Gospel, Christ couldnt
have made it plainer that His Church is, indeed, the church of potential saints
but of a lot of actual sinners.
Whos Calling Whom A Sinner?
It is interesting to note that when the chips were down and
Augustine had to defend the Churches being a Church not only of the holy but
also of the unholy, that often that those who stood in judgment of their fellow
Christians were not so holy themselves. This, in fact, was one of the arguments
that Augustine used: Whos calling whom a sinner?
Several Levels of significance
What is the significance of the Churchs teaching in the
controversy of Donatism led by Augustine for us religious? Several levels of
Efficacy of the Whole Sacramental System Was At Stake
First, because of that controversy, the Church now
teaches with unmistakable clarity that the admission of the sacraments pardon
me admission to the sacrament or administration of the sacrament does not
depend on the holiness of the one who administers. It was Augustine that coined
that beautiful phrase, When John baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes. When
Peter baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes. When Judas baptizes, it is Christ
who baptizes. The sacraments we receive, the Masses we attend, provided the
one administering the sacrament or offering Mass has the power and the minimal
intention to do what Christ wants; we get all the benefits. That is not unimportant,
because the efficacy of the whole sacramental system was at stake.
Christ Came to Call Sinners to Repentance
Secondly, as Augustine made so much effort to make
plain - inasmuch as we believe on Christs own testament that He came to call
sinners to repentance. The very hope for sanctity presumes that the one who
wants to become a saint, is a sinner! And what is most comforting, and I dont
think Ill be always as clear as I should be in a few minutes I will spend on
this subject; but is this ever practically important for most people as Augustine
says progress in holiness is progress against our sinful drives and passions.
Church of Sinners Striving to Become Saints
How do you become a saint? Oh, thats easy! Cope with your
sins. And you can almost predict the kind of a saint that God wants you to be.
Thats easy. Take the list of seven capital sins. Which one is predominant?
Thats usually it. And in case we dont know, ask somebody you live with, theyll
tell you. Congenital laziness, personification of indolence, nice, sweet but
lazy; or a trigger temper - whenever you want, you never tell her to do anything;
you always ask, and then to protect yourself, you use a mediator. The sins that
we are most prone to are the index of the virtues that God wants us to specialize
in. So that the Church is a Church of sinners who are striving to become saints.
I cannot tell you how consoling that is! Because you say to yourself, well,
gosh I really belong to the Church! I really do, because I qualify.
Efficacy of Grace Depends Mainly on Christ
A third profound insight that Augustine brought out,
in his volumes of controversy with Donatism, is the efficacy of grace depends
mainly on Christ. That if it was left up to us, none of us could even aspire
to be saved, let alone, to be a saint. And that God actually wants to be glorified
by sanctifying the most unlikely scoundrels so that to Him alone might be the
glory. And here Augustine knew he had no allusions about Augustines strength
of character none whatever: Reliance on Christ.
Second Major Heresy - Manichaeism
The second major heresy that Augustine fought against
so many volumes, was Manichaeism. Manichaeism, as Im sure you have heard more
than once, originated with an Oriental who became a Christian by the name of,
well, Manichios. After becoming a Christian he decided that what he
had been taught was less than true. It is not clear just how much Manichios
himself held and how much of what is now called Manichaeism was the result
of the speculations of his followers. In any case, by Augustines time it was
plain enough; according to the Manichaeans, the only explanation of evil in
the universe is to postulate two gods; a good God who is the originator and
the provider of which, if you wish, with everything good; and an evil god who
is the perpetrator of everything bad.
As the Manichaeans held, how could you postulate one god
and yet admit there is evil in the world? Either that evil this is a famous
Manichaean dilemma either that evil is illusory or its real; and all the
evidence indicates it is not illusion. Its real; moral evil, physical evil,
sin, treachery, crime and suffering. If this evil is real, they defied the Christians
to show how one good God could be responsible for this evil. And speaking in
1978 let no one tell you that you can shrug that objection off by a smile. In
fact, as Ive told my students for over twenty years; There is no more incisive
objection that the human mind can conceive, because it touches on the deepest
mystery on earth the mystery of evil.
Champion of Human Freedom
Augustine having been a Manichaean for nine years understood
the system well. It took a long time for him to see the errors of either Manichaeism
or of his own, in particular. What he discovered is very valuable for us religious
or, with Gods will, religious-to-be because as Augustine said, If you look
at the Manichaean explanation of evil, especially moral evil, sin - frankly,
what does it say? It says, in so many words, that all the evil is due to a
god, an evil deity outside of you. How convenient, this is Augustine, how
useful, because then no matter what you do, its not really you doing it. When
it dawned on Augustine and by that time he was wallowing deep in his lechery
as he says, once it dawned on me that the same Augustine who is sinning had
the will power (with Gods grace) not to sin; that was a new discovery. Augustine
is a great champion of human freedom, of mans ability to make what he wants
of his life. Many followers of Augustine one that I remember Francis de
Sales why he asked this is de Sales - a great admirer of Augustine: Why
are there so few saints, comparatively speaking? Very simple, very simple! Its
not because more people dont get the grace. Its because more people dont
use their will power.
Most Common Heresy in the World Today
In other words, the Manichaean heresy is an expression of
what we call in philosophy determinism, that we are determined or, if you
wish, pre-determined according to you name it what; the modern form of determinism
is heredity, environment and education. So billions are being spent because
of this illusory hypothesis; that virtue is in the suburbs, and vice is in the
slums that provided people are born, well, of virtuous parents, they will be
virtuous too. Not true, eh? Provided people are properly educated in knowing
what is right and what is true they will infallibly turn out good. Not so.
Provided people live among good people, holy people, nice people, virtuous people;
theyll be nice and good and holy too. All heredity, education and environment
strongly favoring practice, of course. It is just latter day Manichaeism. Millions
of Americans that couldnt spell the word Manichaeism or Manichaean; I believe
that this is the most common heresy in the western world today: Few people have
the will power, even make a decision. I dont say a life-long decision, just
a decision! Or to make up their own minds, theyre constantly feeding their
minds from the outside. Consequently the Churchs teaching on free will and
its power is in large measure due to the impetus that Augustine gave it in its
conflict with Manichaeism.
Pelagius Denied the Need of Any Grace from God
Third, the heresy of Pelagianism, P-e-l-a-g-i-a-n-i-s-m:
Pelagianism is the one major heresy that Great Britain, specifically, the English
can take for credit. Pelagius was a British monk. He made the mistake of leaving
England and traveling - as Ive told so many people unless you have the grace,
dont travel. Youll be exposed to many whims. Pelagius was. He saw some very
misbehaving people, especially bishops, priests and religious. He was scandalized
and if you can imagine one heresy being the opposite of another; Pelagianism
is the opposite of Manichaeism. Pelagius said, I dont have that trouble with
that misbehaving bishop or that bad monk or nun is - I know the problem. Theyre
not using their will power. Thats it. And in time, he went around thinking,
preaching, gaining a following. In time he came to deny the need of any grace
from God. All you need is a strong backbone, will power - who are the saints,
the titans of will power - who are the sinners, those who have a weak will.
No Supernatural Good without Divine Grace
When Augustine heard about Pelagius, he couldnt believe
it. It cant be! Augustine, by that time, knew what kind of will power he had.
He thought, at first, the man must be joking; he cant be serious. When he found
out so many were following Pelagius that he decided to enter the list against
him. When it finally dawned on Augustine that Pelagius was a real heresiarch
thats an arch heretic, a heretic who makes other heretics - thats Pelagius.
You know the qualities of a good, effective heretic thats Pelagius. He was
smart. He spoke and wrote well. He was ascetical. Contemporaries say he was
skin and bones. He ate very little. He fasted a lot. He was the picture, if
you please, of sanctity. So he misled in time, millions. The heresy lasted,
we dont know how many years, and it raged four centuries and it has infected
the Church and its parts of Christianity ever since. Augustine here was at his
best because here he could be very autobiographical. He seldom resorted to sarcasm,
but with Pelagius he did. Augustine explained, as he knew from experience, without
Gods grace we can do nothing in the supernatural order, not even a single supernatural
act can be performed without divine grace as Christ made plain in one of the
most important texts in Revelation that we have to memorize in our sleep, in
theology 15:5 of John. Guess what it says? Without me, you can do nothing! No
supernatural good without divine grace.
Grace Is the Remedy for Our Fallen, Sinful Nature
It was Pelagianism that forced the Church through the genius
of Augustine to clarify its position of the two lives that we live: the natural
life and the supernatural life. The life of nature of which we are born and
the life of grace that we must be given. Out of the conflict therefore with
Pelagianism, Augustine covered the gamut of the Churchs Theology of Grace.
Grace is divine life; grace is invitation. Grace is the remedy oh, how Augustine
emphasized that the remedy for our fallen, sinful nature.
Some of Augustines statements in his anti-Pelagian writings
are so outspoken in describing mans inability to do any good that centuries
later he was picked up by John Calvin; and then Augustine if he could suffer
in heaven what anguish it would have caused him to see himself used by Calvin
as the foundation for predestination: that mans nature is totally depraved.
Well, Augustine never really, never really meant that although as he himself
admitted (and this is to his credit) before he died Augustine published a whole
book of Retractations - things that I said that I shouldnt have said.
Before I die I want to make sure that everybody knows what I really meant. Many
of the passages of the Retractations are former passages of Augustine
in which he says what a massa domnata human nature is, thats
one of Augustines famous phrases. Theres no other translation in English for
this except damned. And then you can translate this in different ways; I
sometimes translate it mess. Human nature is Im quoting Augustine a
damned mess. Augustine, therefore, from years of sinful living had no weird
idea, no illusion of what human nature is apart from Christ thats what it
is. What he didnt mean and he made sure before he died that nobody misconstrued
him. He did not mean that were so utterly depraved that we cannot, for example,
exercise any more will power. He didnt mean that. He did mean, however, that
we can do no supernatural good without grace. And we can, surely, acquire no
virtue without grace.
Prayer: Key to Retaining And Growing in Grace
Augustine as a consequence is the great and there are different
names he is given; He is the doctor gratiae the teacher of grace. No
one has spoken more eloquently about the absolute indispensability of grace
to do any supernatural good and of course to aspire at sanctity. He is also
the doctor orationes - the teacher of prayer. The passages of
Augustine on the necessity of prayer are among the most beautiful in Christian
literature. And I thank him this mornings class, if he was here that no salvation
without grace, no grace beyond what God gave us and even that we lose without
prayer. Prayer is the key to retaining and growing in that without which no
one sees the face of God. So much for his doctrine.
On Community Structure of Religious Life
Let me just say a few words and take our break and go on
to Benedict. First, I trust you had a chance to read the Rule of St. Augustine.
It is the standard Rule that is now followed by every Augustinian and certain
religious orders and congregations that are based on the Augustinian principle.
There are really two Rules of St. Augustine. There was one for men and one for
women although, by now, each Rule has influenced the other and what goes as
the Rule of St. Augustine is not necessarily that which originally left his
hand; unlike the Rule of Benedict, which is Benedict, period. The one for men
was drafted for his own clergy. Augustine, even before he became a bishop, but
later on as Bishop of Hippo decided to organize his priests or his priest-to-be
in a religious community, as we would now call it. I suppose the men of the
diocese had the option of going to another diocese if they didnt want to become
religious or monks.
Augustine Clericalized Religious Life
In any case, that is the masculine Rule. What Augustine has
done therefore, or did for religious life is to make religious of clerics. Augustine
clericalized religious life, That doesnt mean that, even to this day, most
religious are priests. And that, by the way, would be true even among men religious
which may surprise you. Most Trappists in the world are not priests; just to
mention one, one type of monastic living. However, the idea of priests being
religious and living a religious life as priests was Augustine.
Asceticism of the Will: Obedience to Rule
For women he drew up a very detailed Rule which again I have
the option of getting you copies of that to read and what I may do, except that
I dont want to just load you with a lot of paper, because I do want you to
read whatever youre given. Read that. But there is also a Rule that he drew
up for women in his own diocese that has become a standard for women religious
in the Catholic Church. Now there, too, the group was essentially contemplatives
as were mens groups pardon as were some mens groups and all womens groups
in the early Church. As far as structure goes, Augustine recognized on the one
hand as wed just been saying, the importance of not denying the necessity of
free will and, therefore, freedom that a person exercises in becoming a religious
in the first place and knew he wants freedom but not so much in ascetical practices.
Augustine was not so strong in asceticism commonly understood. He was very strong
if you want to use the word asceticism in urging asceticism of the will: Obedience
to Rule. And in fact the Rule itself just to have a Rule of life for Augustine
is already to be a religious. And there is norm called a regula, which
is simply the Latin word for rule from which our English verb is derived regulate
or regular (writing on the board) regulate.
Sacrifice of Ones Own Preferences and Desires
So the asceticism of really conforming myself to a pre-conceived
plan approved by the Church - in his case by the Bishop, which he was - serves
all kinds of purposes: Serves the purpose of requiring sacrifice of ones own
desires to conform to the Rule.
The last thing you might want to do at a particular time
is to go to eat. But the bell rings, but youre not hungry. Thats not the point.
But Im not hungry! So what? You go to eat. Or the last thing that you might
be in the mood to do is pray You want to do something else. So, sacrifice
of ones own preferences and desires.
Secondly, Charity is fostered by regular living. Notice how
weve changed the meaning of regular. It has the idea of periodicity, right?
Thats not the real meaning of regular. The real meaning of regular is according
to rule. According to a pre-conceived and pre-determined norm, because then
each has to defer somehow to the other. And above all a Rule fosters unity.
The two Rules of Augustine - one for men, one for women; both have affected
all religious life since, with however one observation: There was a mildness,
a lack of severity in Augustines understanding of religious life that stood
in stark contrast, with say the Rule of Pachomius also in Africa, remember Hippo
was in Africa. Augustine realized that the most important sacrifice that a human
being can make to God is not of the body (but that too should be sacrificed)
but of the spirit of both mind and will. In the Name of the Father and of the
Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life
Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
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Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica